This was my first time traveling alone and since I didn't know what to expect and I only had 2 weeks of vacation time, I spent a lot of time organising and booking everything beforehand. I am sure most people are more relaxed and flexible than I am :), but I hope this will help you in your trip preparations. I think a lot of people do a combination of camping/hostels/refugios, so I'm writing this specifically for people, who like me, want to pack light without carrying a full backpack with tent on the trail, mainly staying in refugios and hostels.
This was my route:
Punta Arenas was for me more my start off point towards Torres del Paine, so I didn't explore the city at all.
After arriving, there's an airport shuttle that will take you to your hotel/hostel. It's CH$3k and it's just outside the airport exit. Taxi is between CH$7k - CH$9k, neither needs to be arranged beforehand.
Bus to Puerto Natales can be arranged via the hostel (sometimes they only use 1 company though, which my hostel did) and the morning bus was fully booked. The bus terminals are fairly close to each other, so you can check the times and availability at each. There's Bus-Sur (who I thought we're the nicest and most helpful, they have a bag storage place), Bus Pacheo and Bus Fernandez. Single ticket to Puerto Natales is CH$5k and it takes about 3 hours to get there. I believe Bus Sur drops you off in front of Erratic Rock hostel, but I'm not entirely sure, since I didn't go with them.
The 3pm session at the Base Camp bar (next to their hostel - Erratic Rock) is great. I thought I knew most things, after reading so many trip reports, but still learned a few things. The best advice was to line my back pack with a trash bag, since with Patagonia's unpredictable weather, your backpack will get soaked anyways, with or without rain cover. I bought my bus ticket (so called public buses - there are a few companies, mine was Via Paine, Gomez is another one) to Torres del Paine at Erratic Rock, single CH$8k and return is CH$15k. You don't need to arrange them beforehand, since there are many buses. If you get them at Erratic Rock, the bus will pick you up there at 7:30am, I believe there's an afternoon bus too.
Puerto Natales is the LAST spot to get Chilean pesos, there were no ATMs (as of Dec 2012) in the park, you could pay with USD, but you'd have unfavourable exchange rate.
I'd suggest following the details below using this map: fsexpeditions.com/booking_hiker/torres_del_p… Basically, people go either from east to west or from west to east, I kind of did both... The hike up to Mirador las Torres is the toughest one and since I've bad knees, I wanted to start with that trail, but then I went from west to east. This is the official trail map that you will get there: torresdelpaine.com/img/portada/mapaPAINE.jpg
Day 1 & 2: Trail to Mirador de Las Torres (19km return, approximately 800m elevation)
Due to a flight mess up with the airline, I had a day extra, so I had 2 chances/days to see Las Torres and thanks to the weather, I actually did this trail twice...
The bus arrives around 10:00 at the entrance Laguna Amarga. Everybody gets off the bus, pays the park entrance fee CH$18k and watches a video about safety. They also give you a leaflet to hang on your backpack that shows the latest time you need to head back to camp/hostel and is a sign that you paid your park fee. I never had to show mine to anybody. At that point, if you go from west to east, you get back on the same bus, that will take you to the catamaran (crossing Lake Pehoe). If you want to do that at a later stage, which I did, you don't have to pay extra, but I'd advice to hang on to your bus ticket, since they did ask me with which bus company I came. If you go from east to west, this is your starting point. You can either walk 7.5km or take the shuttle (that is waiting for people), that will bring you to refugio Las Torres Central/Norte/Hotel Las Torres. For Hotel Las Torres guests, the shuttle is free, for the refugio guests, it is CH$2,5k.
On my first hike to Las Torres, I took a daypack with water, granola bars, hiking poles, 1 Icebreaker top-layer and my rain/wind jacket, I started out in bright sunshine and 28C. The first part up to Refugio Chileno was for me the hardest part – I have a lot of respect for people, who walked all the way up to Chileno with their full backpack. I was drenched with sweat with just a daypack – it's steep up and you have to cross the mountain, where the path can go from wide to about 60cm with a steep slope next to you. That is also the part, where the wind is particularly strong, we had 60kph wind, which was a bit scary. After Chileno, the temperature drops and you go through a forest. At the end, there's a clear sign towards the mirador. At that point, you will see boulder rocks, through which you've to navigate and at the end you kind of climb over them. I really enjoyed that part actually, it was fun. Once you climbed all the way up, you will look down on a glacier lake and up the Las Torres peaks, if you're lucky. When I got up there, it was cloudy and you couldn't see anything at all, so I had to wait for about 15 minutes for the clouds to be blown away, the top part of the peaks were still in the clouds. (Tip: bring a dry shirt that you can change into and gloves, because it can get cold, if you have to wait for the clouds to blow away). For me this was my favourite trail, despite that it was tough to get up. On my 1st attempt on my 1st day, the park rangers closed the mirador, due to high wind warnings (that day, 2 big tourist buses crashed on their side, due to 180kph wind, luckily no fatalities) and I was close to the trail towards the mirador, so I had to do the same trail the next day again.
Day 3: Trail to Lago Grey (22km return, approximately 400m elevation)
I took the 09:00 shuttle to Laguna Amarga, to get on the public buses to the catamaran. The shuttle time from Refugio Las Torres Central to Laguna Amarga are: 09:00/14:00/16:00/19:30. The buses will be coming in from Puerto Natales, whilst everybody is going through the pay/video process, you can get on any bus, but I'd suggest to get back on the same bus you came in from, using your old receipt. The catamaran leaves at 12:00, you will get there 30 - 45 minutes beforehand from Laguna Amarga, tickets are purchased on board, single is CH$12k. I'd suggest to get onboard last, seeing how they pile up all the backpacks on top of each other. Trail to Lago Grey is fairly easy, compared to Las Torres. You will get a good view of the glacier about 2 hours in. I went up with a daypack, my normal hiking gear, scarf and some gloves, which was sufficient. It's a bit colder than the east side of the W-trail.
Day 4: Trail Valle Frances to Refugio Cuernos (28km, approximately 1100m elevation)
This is probably the longest day, it took me about 10 hours of hiking with my full backpack. Trail from Refugio Mountain Paine Grande towards Campamento Italiano was alright, narrow at times. Once you hit Campamento Italiano, you can leave your backpack in front of the park ranger's building (it's safe) and go up the Valle Frances with your day pack. The trail from Italiano to the mirador (passing Campamento Britanico) is beautiful and I thoroughly enjoyed that. There are a few minor stream crossings and sometimes there are big rocks that you need to climb over. This is the part that I got lost once, because there are many parts with just rocks, meaning you have to find your own trail, you've to search and constantly pay attention to the orange markers. Once you're on top, you will see the backside of the Las Torres peaks. The trail from Italiano to Cuernos is mostly downhill (you go from 195m to 70m), which wasn't very exciting, except for the many river crossings (nothing major, some streams would maybe go up to your ankles, but it's fairly easy to jump/step from rock to rock, waterproof hiking boots help a lot). The highlight of this trail was when I arrived at the shore of lake Nordenskjol, which was really nice.
Day 5: Trail back to Refugio Las Torres Central (11km, approximately 260m elevation)
For me, this was the most boring, least interesting trail, it goes up and down, so you go from 70m to 200m+, down and back up again, there are a lot more streams to cross on this trail. If you do the west to east route, there is a clear short cut, that brings you to refugio Chileno, which I heard is steep, I didn't do it myself, but it makes sense, since the trail up to Chileno is up the mountain.
I took the 16:00 shuttle from refugio Las Torres to Laguna Amarga and the El Chalten Travel bus came and left for El Calafate. Note: the departure time on the ticket is 17:00, but the bus left at 16:30. So, if you were planning to hike that part or you hadn't booked your bus to El Calafate, make sure you're there early.
I stayed 2 nights there, due to late arrival from TdP (10-ish evening arrival) and I did the Big Ice Trek the next day and 1 night before my flight to Buenos Aires. El Calafate has a few ATMs and it's definitely a village focused on the hiking community with shops selling hiking gear.
I did the Big Ice Trek by Hielo Aventura and I can definitely recommend this. Cost is AR$950 + AR$100 park entrance fee, this includes pick up from your hostel, 1 hour at the balconies in front of the Perito Moreno. As nice at it was, 1 hour at the balconies was sufficient. Then, you take the bus and a quick boat ride along the glacier, after that you hike for about 45 minutes to the starting point of the Big Ice Trek. They give you crampons and you hike on the glaciers, exploring the bluest tiny lakes on the glaciers, jumping over crevasses, you hike towards the middle of the glacier for about 3,5 hours. I really enjoyed this, the glacier is so beautiful, it's surreal.
I booked my bus to El Chalten at Cal Tur in their el Calafate office (on the main road), return is AR$220. It didn't seem like that's something you need to arrange beforehand and the 13:00 bus was half empty anyways. The bus stops in front of the visitor center and everybody gets a mini speech from the park ranger and a map.
I did 2 day hikes with a daypack:
- Fitz Roy/Laguna de Las Tres, 20.5km, elevation 750m. Took a bus to hostel el Pilar (arranged by the hostel, costs A$50), which reduces your hiking time by 1 hour and you don't have to take the same route there and back. Suggest to do the Fitz Roy, when it's cloudy, because it's certain you won't be able to see Cerro Torre, but there's a chance with Fitz Roy. Hike is nice and easier than TdP, except for the last part, that was steep up and a bit of climbing over rocks, difficulty level is comparable to TdP's Valle Frances. Once you hit the top, on your left, there's another rocky hill, climb that one and you will see another lake.
- Laguna Torre, 22km, elevation 250m. A very easy and nice walk, the feedback I got was that there is no need to walk all the way towards the Maestro look out. This is the only trail that I couldn't easily find a river stream to refill my bottle.
Depending on whether you prefer to start with the toughest part first or you want to ease into it. Easy would be the reverse order of my trip: El Chalten (Laguna Torre and then Laguna de Las Tres) → Big Ice Trek in El Calafate → Torres del Paine (going from west to east).
If I had to do it again, I would probably do El Chalten (Laguna de las Tres only) → Big Ice Trek in El Calafate → Torres del Paine: 3 day trips from refugios, start from west to east:
Day 1: Arrival from catamaran around noon, hike towards the mirador of the Lago Grey trail (2 – 2.5 hours in) and return, stay at refugio Mountain Paine Grande
Day 2: Early start towards Valles Frances and back the same route, take the last catamaran and bus to refugio Las Torres (if possible), stay at refugio Las Torres
Day 3: Early start, hike towards mirador de Las Torres and take the bus out towards El Calafate or Puerto Natales
Puerto Natales: Erratic Rock, run by an American Bill, who are one of the few people, who really like what they're doing. He was happily making an omelet for us at 7am in the morning, chatting to all his guests. The place is clean and the staff is extremely helpful. They rent gear in case you don't want to bring them.
Torres del Paine (in order of my route):
- Refugio Las Torres Norte, clean, very close to Torres Central, it was a tad cold, no lockers
- Refugio Las Torres Central, very clean, amazing hot showers, warm lounge/common room and it had lockers for your bag. It also provided bag storage in case you want to leave an extra bag there and pick up later.
- Refugio Mountain Paine Grande Lodge, clean, a bit cold inside, showers were ok, dinner was buffet style
- Refugio Cuernos, very small, cute, bunk beds were dirty and they put 3 bunk beds on top of each other, so if you're on top, that wasn't pleasant.
El Calafate: Hosteria Lautaro, very central and amazing, friendly owners
El Chalten: Hostel Albergue Patagonia, looks very new and clean, one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in, great staff
I assume most people, who read this have a good sense of what to bring (trust me, I've seen hotpants and All Stars on the trails), so I don't need to go into details of what to bring. One thing I want to mention is that if you want to invest in a few good things, here's my top 3 of gear to invest in:
1) A very good breathable rain/wind jacket, I had a Haglofs Goretex jacket and I couldn't have done it without it, because you sweat so much, breathability is a must.
2) Hiking poles, absolute necessity, your knees will thank you in the long run
3) Waterproof hiking boots, helpful with crossing streams.
Note: For people with bad knees (like me), I wear a knee brace on my left knee, but the downhill parts are quite long and I noticed I was trying so hard not to put too much pressure on my bad knee, that all the pressure went onto my good knee, which resulted in two very painful knees. I would suggest to bring two brace for both knees.
What to bring when you want to travel light and what I really didn't need:
- Water purification drops, I was in doubt about the water quality, but I've to admit that most reports were right, I refilled my water bottle with water from the stream and it tasted great. I think the only time you might get sick is if you get water downstream from a camping spot and then you're just very unlucky. I never used my drops.
- Sleeping bag, mine was very warm, but bulky and heavy. Most hostels have blankets, so the only 3 times I needed it, was in TdP in refugio Las Torres Norte, Mountain Paine Grande Lodge and refugio Cuernos. I'd suggest bring a sleeping bag liner (for example: Sea to Summit Thermolite) and wear long sleeves thermal underwear as pajamas.
- Head lamp, I was never even close in using this, since I didn't camp and day light is pretty long in the summer.
- Extra pair of shoes. I had a good pair of hiking boots (lined with Gore tex) and no blisters at all, I wore flip flops in the refugios/hostels. I never even wore my extra pair of shoes.
- If you bring food, write down what and how much you will eat daily, it sounds weird, but I did it and I still ended up with too much food, which I have been dragging from mountain to mountain. I mainly had granola bars, trail mix and chocolate bars for breakfast & lunch and I had dinner at the refugios. Keep in mind that the refugios have 2 dinner shifts: 19:30 and 20:30, with my schedule I usually was there on time.